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Updated on October 27, 2012


Right from time immemorial man had always lived in awe of the elements of nature. Natural phenomenon like eclipses, storms, droughts was all attributed to the supernatural. Every culture therefore believed in various gods which were responsible for these natural events. For thousands of years, people were of the view that they lived on the mercy these powerful deities and that they need to be propitiated very often. The world view was based on the fear and helplessness of man. Though the Greeks had introduced the basic principles of scientific enquiry, very little was done experimentally to observe and confirm some of the basic conclusions. Astronomy for example as evolved by Ptolemy was geocentric and for centuries it remained an accepted truth. It never crossed the mind of people that it could be otherwise.

This picture however changed soon after the middle ages. Thinkers like Roger Bacon, Tycho Brahe, Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes etc. highlighted the need for careful observation and correct inference to arrive at the truth. This spirit of scientific enquiry laid the foundations of modern science. The outcome of this was the removal of ignorance and thereby irrational beliefs of nature’s powers. Nature was no longer a mystery governed by jealous gods that needs to be propitiated.


Soon after the renaissance, the foundations of classical physics were laid down by Newton with mathematical inputs from other great mathematicians like Laplace, Leibnitz etc . They developed a Cartesian world view which facilitated predictability. It was in the field of astronomy that this deterministic approach became popular. With the aid of mathematical equations, one could project eclipses and other celestial phenomenon. This however was a very simplistic view of nature. Prediction was possible only as long as two interlinked bodies were concerned. But it was the French mathematician Henry Poincare who while trying to solve the problem of three celestial bodies soon realized that the old Newtonian approach failed.. He found that orbits can not only be non periodic and not for ever increasing or approaching a fixed point. This irregularity stunned not only others but Poincare too. For the first time doubts arose about the deterministic approach of classical physics. The three-body problem highlighted the uncertainty of deterministic approach not only celestial bodies but all other aspects of nature too. One area of science which had always been a challenge to great minds was meteorology. The prediction of weather had always been a problem. Not until the invention of super computers scientist could hazard a guess of weather patterns. One mathematician who was deeply engrossed in studying and predicting weather was Edward Lorenz. On the basis of his study he realized that linear statistical model were inappropriate and accidentally hit upon a very interesting discovery. One day he decided to feed in the same set of data which was done on the previous day. He was surprised to note that the output which he got was quite different from that of the previous day. This made him realize that weather patterns were far more complex than what was made out to be. He therefore developed the butterfly theory. The paradoxical implication of this was that a butterfly which flaps its wing in the south pacific is bound to create small amount of turbulences which two years later may become a full fledged storm in the distant Atlantic. Lorenz therefore developed the theory of chaos.. Lorenz findings sent out shock waves amongst mathematicians and other fellow scientists. The certainty that was associated with science and the resulting feeling of power gave way to uncertainty and a strange feeling of helplessness. Thinkers realized that every system has this tendency to be affected by infinitesimal changes which later becomes magnified into big ones. Lorenz’s theory of chaos had great impact on physical and social sciences. It soon dawned on many that all systems are prone to dramatic changes owing to small incremental ones in its initial stage. This tendency for a system to respond chaotically can be explained by an analogy. If a large chunk of rock is rolled up a sloping hill, the rock on reaching the edge can go hurtling down on any direction depending upon the tipping conditions. It is this which lends uncertainty to the outcome of an apparently predictable move.


Though the application of the theory of chaos in the physical sciences is well known its ramification in social sciences are no less important. Scanning history one can find many situations where the theory of chaos becomes operational in social scenarios. One of the earliest examples was the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. The situation during the dawn of the 20th century showed no signs of any kind of social or political turbulence outwardly. The world was comprised of great empires which had carved out spheres of influences globally. There was also an intricate setup of international alliances. Right up to 1914 the overall picture was one of peace and stability. There was however small areas of conflict of which one happened to be Serbia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A small group of militants called the Black Hand were hell bend on seceding from Austro-Hungarian Empire. For this they felt that the best method would be to assassinate members of the royalty. Gavrilo Princep succeeded in assassinating Arch Duke Ferdinand who was the crown prince during his visit to Sarajevo. This assassination, seemingly trifle started a chain reaction. To avenge the murder of the crown prince Austria cracked down on Serbia which resulted in Russia and France coming to the aid of Serbian cause. What followed was a strange spectacle of the conflicts spreading in an unpredictable manner. In a way the assassination was the tipping point of a precariously perched political system unleashing chaos and destruction.

First World War was just a political example of theory of chaos becoming operational. The other was the great depression of the 1930’s. In 1929, following the collapse in value of the shares of many prominent banks and other big companies the world was plunged in deep depression. What the world witnessed was an economic system that became unstable owing to circumstances that led it to the tipping point. Closer to our century the terror attack on the world trade center too unleashed events which were totally unpredictable and having complex ramifications. The present day world is a very delicate social system which is placed in a similarly vulnerable position.

But what is of far greater concern is with regard to the application of the theory of chaos in the case of our environment. In man’s pursuit for economic development he has unleashed forces of change which are both good and bad. The good ones are economic growth and development. The bad one is a relentless exploitation of the environment. We have reached a stage where owing to rapid development the world is sitting on the brink of disaster. Climatic changes which were negligible about five decades earlier have become more pronounced and if it cannot be arrested the environmental system will reach a tipping point after which consequences can be unpredictable and dangerous. In a way mankind is now hurtling towards uncertainty and chaos.


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